While traveling on Interstate 17 for a landscaping job, one of Hugh Pressman’s trailer axles broke after hitting a pothole on the freeway.

Pressman, the owner of Kaibab Landscaping, commutes into Flagstaff from Munds Park and dispatches members of his team throughout the region for projects. Lately, Pressman said, he fears for his employees’ safety when traveling to job sites because of rough conditions on the interstates.

“The road conditions are dire,” Pressman said of interstates 40 and 17. “Those roads are extremely dangerous and covered in potholes.”

CONDITIONS

Deferred maintenance on freeways in northern Arizona has contributed to rough conditions on some of the most heavily used infrastructure, said Mark Woodson, the owner of Woodson Engineering.

Regular maintenance can keep roads functioning longer and help prevent more costly projects when roads deteriorate too much, he said.

“We’ve gone beyond that point,” Woodson said. “We already have to spend more on maintenance than we would if the roads had been maintained regularly.”

The Arizona Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over both interstates as well as some roads within the city, must “prioritize maintenance and construction projects because there is only so much funding available at one time,” ADOT spokesman Ryan Harding said in an email.

Woodson agreed, and said the solutions would be easy if the money was available.

“The biggest problem today is the financing mechanism for roads,” Woodson said. “The engineering solution is the easy part. We know how to fix it and we know how to maintain it, but we are not given the money to do it.”

Woodson said, based on some resurfacing projects being done on freeways, complete resurfacing can cost about $1 million per mile.

But, potholes and other road hazards have presented a safety risk on local freeways.

“You get safety issues from just plain hitting a pothole,” Woodson said. “And between Flagstaff and Williams, people drive in the left hand lane instead of the right lane and makes passing less safe. I’ve seen trailers flip and truckers repairing tires on the side.”

Woodson served as president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which issues a report card for infrastructure nationwide and at the state level. The most recent report card for Arizona was issued in 2015, and rated roads throughout the state at a “D plus” level. The report does not break down to the county or district level.

“Motor vehicle crashes cost Arizona $4 billion per year, $833 for each resident, in medical costs, lost productivity, travel delays, workplace costs, insurance costs and legal costs,” the report reads in part.

The report also states that roadway conditions contribute to about one-third of traffic fatalities.

“There were 849 traffic fatalities in 2013 in Arizona. A total of 4,068 people died on Arizona’s highways from 2009 through 2013,” according to the report.

A FLAGSTAFF PROBLEM

“I-17 and I-40 are critical for the health and well-being of our city,” Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans said. “The bulk of rural Arizona depends on goods, services and people travelling along the I-17 and I-40 corridors.”

The city council hosted the ADOT board over the summer to discuss issues for the Flagstaff area, and Evans said the city, and other cities that depend on the freeways, to have people at the capital when the budget is being crafted to advocate for more funding.

“It will take working with state representatives and senators to say this is a major problem,” Evans said.

Evans said the freeway conditions are “definitely a Flagstaff problem,” but also affect most cities and towns in rural Arizona.

Flagstaff City Manager Josh Copley said the city regards ADOT as a partner in “an atmosphere of collaboration,” and said all concerns he has brought forward to the department.

“There has been a willingness to listen to our concerns and a desire to address the issues,” Copley said.

The city does not have jurisdiction over ADOT-controlled freeways, but Copley said the city considers ADOT a “good partner and collaborator.”

Copley said the freeze-thaw cycles of the Flagstaff area create more road problems than in areas where it does not freeze as often.

“As you’re experiencing a change in altitude, you will see a distinct difference in the road conditions,” Copley said.

Potholes on the freeways can grow exponentially within a few days, Copley said, especially when water freezes inside overnight and thaws during the day.

At the most recent meeting with the department’s board, Copley said he and the city council wanted to focus on the Fourth Street bridges, which need to be widened and lengthened. The city is funding part of the improvements to the bridge.

But Copley said he would like to see more capital improvements from ADOT in the Flagstaff area, and said he and his staff will “continue to bring local concerns” before department representatives and leadership.

The department’s 2018 through 2022 5-year plan, which is still in the review period, does not include capital improvements solely in Coconino County, but does include widening I-17 between Stoneman Lake to Rocky Park road, which is mostly in Yavapai County but extends into Coconino. However, maintenance for existing infrastructure is not listed in the plan.

FUNDING

ADOT does not break down funding allocations by county, and instead uses districts specific to the department, Harding said. Flagstaff is part of the Northcentral district, which includes most of Coconino County and parts of Yavapai, Mohave and Navajo counties.

For the last six years, the Northcentral district has received the second highest allotment for maintenance, second to the Central district that includes the greater Phoenix area. In the 2017 fiscal year, the department allotted $12.8 million to maintenance in the Northcentral district, which Harding said includes “roadway maintenance… repairs to fencing and guardrail, as well as snow removal, emergency responses to crashes or natural disasters such as highway flooding, vehicle maintenance and even worker training costs.”

The Central district also benefits from a half-cent sales tax in Maricopa County, Harding said, which covers more than maintaining the road surface.

The department also has a division called Transportation Systems Management and Operations, which receives maintenance funding for “use statewide with intelligent transportation systems. It also may include some signage, signals, pavement markings and other controlling devices. It’s separate than the funding each engineering district receives directly,” Harding said.

The American Society of Civil Engineers, Woodson’s organization, advocates for a higher tax on gasoline to fund road repair and maintenance, he said.

Evans said she would like the state to consider increasing the gas tax, or look at a transportation tax that could fund projects and maintenance.

“If you aren’t allocating funds for transportation solutions the roads are only going to get worse,” she said. “As long as we are afraid to talk about raising the gas tax, the repairs are not going to get done.”

IMPROVEMENT PROJECTS

“ADOT maintenance crews worked well into the spring patching and repairing potholes on I-17, I-40, and other state highways,” Harding said. “The maintenance crews also prioritized and repaired the worst areas with pavement spot repairs on ADOT highways over the summer and still continue into the fall.”

Most of the construction this summer was on I-40 west of Flagstaff, which was determined to be a top priority due to the roadway condition, Harding said. The department will continue to work on that area, between Parks and A-1 Mountain, next year beginning in spring.

The department is also planning a project on I-17 to mill down and repave 29 miles on the northbound side from Flagstaff extending south, Harding said. The project will be similar to the work done between Parks and A-1 Mountain.

“I-17 will get attention in the upcoming years as ADOT is committed to keeping Arizona’s northern highways in top condition despite the annual challenge of winter weather with 200 freeze-thaw cycles per year,” Harding said.

The reporter can be reached at cvanek@azdailysun.com or 556-2249.

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Corina Vanek covers city government, city growth and development for the Arizona Daily Sun.

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